Mishpatim by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Mishpatim: The Paving-Blocks of Heaven


“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ascended; they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet there appeared the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand againt the leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.”

–Exodus 24:9-11

My name is Yonatan ben Hoseef ben Zevulun, Stranger. I am very happy that you found my tent. We are not friends, having just met, and so, I am able to pour out my heart to you; an old friend might think me insane. Briefly, I just participated in the most remarkable journey any mortal could experience, led by our Rabbi Moses. It has convinced me that the man is not just a teacher and a miracle-worker, but also a mystic.

Why, do you ask? I will tell you. Moses had begun receiving Torah from the Lord GOD—it was workaday ordinances: laws governing the proper care of cattle, how we are to run our farms once we enter Canaan—and who knows when, or if, that will happen? Yes: I know that God has promised it, and I have as much faith as the next man—but this same God is so mercurial, so quick to change His mind, that I doubt whether all of us escapees from our Egyptian prison will make it there alive.

Well, no matter: I will rejoice, even at the end of my life, if my son and granddaughters make it there, and either wrest it bodily from the Canaanite pagans, or infiltrate the land gradually. I have witnessed the Ten Plagues, seen the flower of Egypt’s cavalry flung into and drowned in the Sea of Reeds. After all our sufferings at Pharaoh’s hands (and those of his father and grandfather, too), that warms my vengeful heart in a manner part of me finds disquieting.

Still, no matter. I promised you a tale of a mystical nature, and you shall have it. I am not an old man, but, because my father Hoseef died young, in Egypt—he was measuring the boundaries of one of Ramesses’s monuments to himself, when a craneload of sandstone blocks accidentally dropped on him—I inherited his office of zaken, a tribal elder. On that basis, I attended their next meeting. The older elders—strange to be saying that—were hesitant to accept me. One of the most aged graybeards, a rascal named Letzneel ben Shoteh, challenged me:

“You there, you Yonatan! How dare you enter our sacred assembly? How can you lay claim to any knowledge of the Law?”

But I swiftly put him into his place. Coolly, I replied:

“Since the Torah has not been given yet, Milord Letzneel, I will learn it, I promise you, as quickly as any of you. And it is a fact that we young ones learn more quickly than others who pretend to a knowledge of the Law; we are unafraid to admit our shortcomings, and absorb more quickly, than prideful elders.”

That quick answer put the old slug into his place. He took his seat, muttering, and the other Elders quickly voted to admit me, to represent my tribe. Zevulun.

Aaron came to our meeting, and requested that we adjourn quickly—it seems that Milord Rabbi Moses wished us to accompany him, if not to the top of Sinai, then close by—so it seemed. We arose, formed a line in order of seniority and succession, and followed our High Priest.

As we marched by twos through the Camp of Israel, the common folk gave way before us, and a few cheered for us—really, since Moses had arrived in Egypt and taken over leadership of our people, we Elders had not met on a regular basis; there was no need. Our Prophet would receive messages from God, and tell the people directly. We were a remnant of an earlier day, going all the way back to Jacob’s passing, and his sons seeking a more equitable way to solve tribal disagreements.

In the midst of all this pomp and lack-of-circumstance, I realized that I was getting hungry—I am a cobbler, and, with all of Moses’s lectures, had lost time from work; orders were coming due. I had rushed to my work that morning. In my hurrying, I had grabbed merely a pita, dipped it into some hummus, and crammed it into my mouth. Too late, I realized that I had not uttered the appropriate bracha, or blessing, and so, following that first bite, I mumbled, “B’rich Mar d’hai pita”—”Blessed be the Master of this pita,” which I hoped would please God. I feared that the sound of my empty belly rumbling might disturb whatever ceremonies were to take place—I saw Aaron at our head, and figured that he and his elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, would make some sort of offering.

Still, my hunger persisted—and, as one would figure, I felt a headache coming on. Normally, my dear wife Uriella bat Elchananoo’Machshefa would put a cool, wet cloth on my forehead, and do her best to keep our little ones from playing in the tent, which was not easy to do, especially on a hot desert day. But Uriella was far behind me in the camp, and there were no cool cloths among our parade of ancients. From far in the front, I saw Aaron gesturing animatedly and saying something to our front rank—I plucked at the sleeve of the man in front of me, but he could not hear, either: he was old and deaf. My headache, meanwhile, pounded away.

The last thing I remember of our troop of elders was Aaron holding up his hands with his fingers spread in the well-known priestly-blessing fashion. I looked at his hands—something inside of me urged me to do so, or, perhaps, I hoped that this talisman might relieve my head-pounding.

Instead, there was a flash of light and a cloud of something smelling like incense—the light slowly faded, and I could not see to see—I shut my eyes in fear. When I opened them, I was standing, not on desert sand, but on a sapphire sort of pavement. I dared not look up, but heard a thundering voice—could this be the Invisible God of Whom Moses had spoken? I feared that to look upon Him was death, but did sneak a peek at the throne—it was all pearl-coated gold. And my headache, Blessed be God, was gone. It was a miracle.

I did look at both sides, away from the Throne, and saw tables laden with fruits and nuts and sweet biscuits, along with every good thing. The foremost elders—I noted among them the laggard who wished to exclude me from the throng—were first at the tables, and did eat and drink. What holy food there was: oranges sweet as the honey of Eden, wine laid up since the days of Creation, and all in abundance. We were there for—how long? Days? Hours? Seconds?—but eventually returned to earth, I am not exactly sure how.

I would love, indeed, to return, and ask questions of this God, but I doubt it will ever happen again. Still, I am grateful for our miracle, which is a deep secret; Moses has promised not to include it in the Holy Scroll. I now believe, most wholeheartedly, in the One True God, the God of Israel. May He protect us on our way!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Enjoyed this archived service or article? Click here to donate $3 to OneShul (care of PunkTorah).

Support OneShul on GoFundMe

Leave a Reply